Critical Play: Journey

Name of game: Journey

Creator: thatgamecompany

Platform: iOS

Target audience: casual video game players

Format elements: Journey is a single player game where the objective is to “walk” towards the peak of a tall mountain. The only mechanics allowed are walking, jumping, and signaling, and in each level the player uses these actions to solve puzzles. Each level has resources that the player can use such as other simulated players and floating tiles that provide energy to jump. The boundaries of the game are the mystical game world.

Types of fun: Sensation – the beautiful world with its visuals, sounds, and music. Narrative – the journey of reconnecting with peers and reaching the top of the mountain. Discovery – finding new worlds at each level. Challenge – the difficulty and reward of solving the puzzle in each level.

How walking tells the story:

Walking is the core mechanic of the game, in addition to jumping and signaling. The player must complete the basic narrative of the game, a necessary journey of unknown length and difficulty to the top of the mountain, using only these core mechanics. In a way, this narrative evokes our own human condition: we often have arduous but nebulous goals we wish to accomplish, like self-actualization, and it feels like we have little in our control to accomplish these goals. Indeed, walking games evoke the adage, “one step at a time is all it takes to get you there”. As the player progresses, they realize that they have more to help them than mere walking: they have other “players” (AIs) and rich resources in the environment to help them solve each puzzle. With each interaction loop, the player realizes they can solve much more than they initially thought, even though their basic skill is still to walk.

Although the simplicity of walking leads to easy ramp-up and immersion, it can also lead to frustration. In later levels, I found myself falling from elevated structures that took a long time to ascend, therefore creating frustration when I realized it would take a long time to walk / navigate up them again. At this point, I rage quit the game because I found the walking mechanic painful rather than beautiful. Perhaps adding a save position mechanic or a jump mechanic that could save someone from such mistakes would be helpful.

I liked how, when ascending sand dunes, the player’s walk is slowed and the camera is also tilted, to give the impression of the difficulty of climbing the sand dune. To accentuate the walking experience, the game could add more of these controlled walks at important parts in the game. For example, when entering temples, perhaps the player’s walk could be slowed to highlight the sacred nature of the space, as the sound could become more echo-y and ominous.

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